HL Deb 23 February 1955 vol 191 cc370-83

2.58 p.m.

EARL JOWITT rose to call attention to the forestry policy of Her Majesty's Government; and to move for Papers. The noble and learned Earl said: My Lords, it is a long time since we have had a forestry debate in this House; I do not think we have had one since July, 1949. In 1951 we introduced a Bill to control licences for felling, but that, of course, did not deal with forestry. I am glad to see from the list of speakers that we have a large number of noble Lords who really know about the subject which is now under discussion. I feel that I should apologise that the labour of opening the debate should fall upon me, because I have nothing like the expert knowledge that many of the succeeding speakers have.

My interest in forestry arises in this way. For several years during the war, and before I became Minister of National Insurance, I was Minister without Portfolio. A Minister without Portfolio is always rather in the position of the fifth wheel of a coach: he is looking about to find something which he can usefully do without trespassing on other people's preserves. In those clays forestry had no Minister, so I looked hopefully towards forestry and became interested in it. I count myself lucky that I did so, because I won and retained the friendship of the late Lord Robinson. I found him a most inspiring companion in the many visits which I paid to the forests of this country. What forestry in this country owes to Lord Robinson it is quite impossible to say. He left behind him a staff highly trained, highly competent and highly skilled, and they have retained his enthusiasm for his work. Lord Robinson's death was a great loss to us. I may say at once, more especially because I am going to criticise some features of his administration hereafter, that from my association with that staff, which I still retain, I know how happy they are to have Lord Radnor as their present chairman. I am quite satisfied that a better choice could not possibly have been made.

May I briefly recall the situation in 1943 when I occupied that position and to some extent looked after this matter—that is to say, at the date when the Report was made by the Forestry Commission. In the 1914 War, the Kaiser war, we had felled 450,000 acres of woodland. Mr. Lloyd George in February, 1917, made a speech in which he dealt with the shipping situation, which was indeed perilous. He pointed out that of all cargoes, that which presented the greatest difficulty was the timber cargo, because of its bulk, and he said that we could deal with the situation only by cutting and using our own timber. That we did. We cut something like 450,000 acres of timber.

In the last war, the Hitler war, the same problem arose. If Lord Leathers were here I feel perfectly certain that he would say that of all the headaches he had (and as Minister of Shipping he must have had many) this problem of timber was one of the greatest. Timber had to be imported into this country largely from Canada—a long and extremely difficult haul. We took out of our woods 17 million shipping tons of timber, with the result that at the end of the war we had left well under half a million acres under State plantations—most of these had been too young to make any substantial contribution to the war effort, though, as we all know, there was a lot of felling of immature timber—and about 2,800,000 acres of private woodlands, of which 1 million acres were said to be passably productive and the balance, I am afraid, almost useless.

Pause for a moment to consider, if you will, this fact. Nature has endowed us with a climate which is not beyond criticism, but it has this advantage: that, speaking by and large, it is exceedingly good for growing trees. May I give your Lordships one illustration? I am not going to weary you with a lot of figures. Norway spruce here, at the end of fifty years, is likely to produce 5,000 cubic feet of timber. A comparable figure in Prussia would be 2,200 cubic feet and in Finland only 900 cubic feet. I have travelled and seen forests, I suppose, in most parts of the world, and with the exception of New Zealand and the Pacific Coast, particularly British Columbia, I should doubt whether there are any other countries more favoured by nature than our own for the growing of timber. Yet, of our acreage of 56 million acres, we have only a little over 5 per cent. under trees. Compare that with other countries: Germany has 27 per cent. of its territory under trees; France 19 per cent.; even little Holland has nearly 8 per cent.; Denmark has 7.5 per cent., and this country is said in the Report of the Commission to have 5.5 per cent., but I doubt whether it is quite as much as that.

That being so, in 1943 the Forestry Commission published what they called their "desirable programme." Their idea was that within fifty years we should have 5 million acres of effective forests: 2 million acres to come from existing woodlands (when I deal with them I refer to them as "replanting") and 3 million acres to come from the afforestation of bare ground, which I refer to as "afforestation." The Report divided what was to be done into decades, and pointed out what is obvious: that since trees take a long time to grow, time is a factor of extreme importance. Therefore, it is essential to get the maximum possible areas planted in the first and second decades.

My Lords, I am sure they were right, and for these reasons. First of all, there is the strategic reason. In two wars we had to cut very heavily that which we then had. If, which God prevent! we find ourselves once more in the danger of war, we shall have no reserves in any way comparable to the reserves which we then had. Secondly, there is the economic argument. The average amount we have spent on imports of timber for the last five years is £157 million. I have not the figure we spent on the import of pulp but it must be substantial, and, be it observed, that pulp is largely imported from hard currency countries. Therefore, from the economic point of view there is an obviously overwhelming case for growing what we can in our own country. Thirdly, there is, I think, the social argument. If we want a happy little community who are doing a fine job of work, a man's job, working in the country, if we wish to get our people out of the crowded cities, we shall find no better means of doing it that by getting them into forestry. From that point of view I think we should do everything we can to encourage this industry.

According to the programme which was then laid down, we should in the first post-war decade have afforested 500,000 acres and replanted 600,000 acres, making a total of 1,100,000 acres. In my view that was the bare minimum. Lord Robinson, who had a practical appreciation of the difficulties, put that forward as his programme. The forestry year begins on the 1st October and ends on the 30th September; that embraces the planting season. The first year I take is that beginning October, 1946, which was well after the end of the war, and ending September, 1947, which I refer to as the 1947 year. We are now in the course of the ninth year. The planting in the ninth year has practically finished, but I have not up-to-date figures. My figures finish with the 1953 forestry year—that is to say, they are for seven completed years. According to the programme, I find that in those seven years we ought to have afforested 305,000 acres; we have in fact afforested only 230,000 acres. Therefore we have achieved 75 per cent. of the programme, but we have fallen short by a quarter.

With regard to replanting, in the seven years we ought to have replanted 345,000 acres; we have in fact replanted only 213,000 acres. Therefore, at the end of the seven years we have completed 62 per cent. and we have fallen short of the programme by 38 per cent. Whether in the eighth year and the ninth year we have made up on those figures, I do not know. I have heard on good authority that so far as replanting is concerned we have, to some extent I believe that at the end of the eighth year we have achieved 77 per cent. of the desirable programme. I rather fear, however, that in afforestation we have probably fallen back. But I await with interest what the noble Earl, Lord Home, has to say about this matter.

I regard this as a serious question—so much so, indeed, that I think it is much too serious for any Party recriminations. Your Lordships may fairly say that a large part of the failure occurred during the régime of the Labour Government. Be it so—I do not think that has much to do with it. But I am making no point of that sort at all, for this matter is too important. I do not believe it is in any way the fault of the staff—I wish to make that plain—for there is a very competent and highly-trained staff, and our forestry school is now as good as any in the world. Nor do I believe that the fault lies with the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Chancellors of the Exchequer never give quite as much money as one would like, but the service I was able to render to the Forestry Commission in those days was to induce the then Chancellor to come on visits with me. I managed to get successive Chancellors of the Exchequer enthusiastic about forestry. I believe that the present Chancellor of the Exchequer has certainly done fairly by the Forestry Commission.

The difficulty with afforestation (I will talk later of replanting) is that of getting sufficient suitable—that is, plantable—land. I should like to know, in due course, whether the noble Earl who is to reply agrees with me. In paragraph 505 of the 1943 Report of the Forestry Commission it is pointed out that for comfortable working it is necessary to have in reserve land equal ten times the volume of the annual planting. That figure has been questioned in a later Report, and it is suggested that ten times is perhaps too much. I do not know enough to speak authoritatively, but I do know that five times the quantity is too little. I think nobody would doubt that. The Forestry Commission to-day have 320,000 acres of land in reserve, and the annual programme which they ought now to be afforesting is 65,030 acres; that is to say, they have rather less than five times the volume of their annual planting programme, and that, I believe, is giving trouble.

In the days of the Coalition Government, I was in part responsible for seeing that forestry was placed under the Ministry of Agriculture. I thought it right to put the responsibility of dealing with forestry fairly and squarely on to the shoulders of the Minister. There was some difference of opinion between farmers—sheep farmers in particular—and forestry interests. As the farmers are much more powerful, politically, than forestry interests, I foresaw a danger of forestry becoming a "Cinderella." I realised the danger of local pressure on the Minister through the National Farmers' Union, and that there was no political advantage to be gained by pressing forestry forward. At the same time, the Forestry Commission were given powers of compulsory purchase, and in my view the Commission have been altogether too shy and too reluctant to use those powers. They have hardly ever done so. I believe that they are frightened of being accused of being bureaucrats; the Crichel Down case has possibly had an evil effect on those of us who doubtless want a peaceful and quiet life, and has headed them away from compulsory purchase. I suppose that when the Good Lord rolled back the waters and produced dry land and light, the little fishes of the sea complained of undue bureaucratic control. No doubt they spoke of "undue centralisation": in modern language we should speak of "too much Whitehall."

If the Forestry Commission are to be frightened away from making any use of their compulsory purchase powers then they will be unable to carry out the function with which they have been entrusted. I am tired of having heard, for so many years, the suggestion that the Commission do not use their compulsory purchase powers because they do not want to upset the general good will. Let me assure them there is no existing general good will towards the Forestry Commission. There are a certain number of enlightened landowners and right-thinking people who show every good will towards the Commission; but to suggest that there is a general good will is to put it far too high. I very much hope that the Commission will recommend to the Minister the use of their powers if they are in any difficulty about getting land. It is not the fault of the Ministers, for I do not know of one case in which, the Commission having asked a Minister for authority to use their compulsory purchase powers, he has refused. There may be cases, but I do not know of one. I would urge the Commission not to be frightened of mere slogans. We must of course keep our slogans, for they are useful at election times. Noble Lords on the other side will say, "Set the people free," and we shall say, "God gave the land to the people." But in the meantime, between elections, let us look at the matter with good heart and have some common sense and resolute action.

I come now to a matter which is, again, political dynamite, for I am going to talk of commons, and I will make an urgent appeal to Her Majesty's Government. In order to limit the area of discussion may I say that I am not dealing with metropolitan commons, playing fields or even rights of access, although I believe that in the forestry parks, to which public right of access is now given, the public have behaved with good sense and restraint, and have been helpful rather than the reverse. I shall be interested to hear what the Minister concerned can say about this. I am dealing with rights of pasturage. There are two million acres in England, and half a million acres in Wales. which are common land. This matter came up in another place on May 14 of last year, and Mr. Dodds-Parker, speaking for the Minister, said that the land comprised in these commons was progressively deteriorating. He pointed out that ploughing was impossible and that there was no way of renovating the pastures; and he ended by saying that the Government would study the matter. May 14 is almost exactly nine months ago. The period of gestation has run its full course and I hope that either one of the noble Lords who is to reply for Her Majesty's Government will to-day produce to a delighted House the infant which they have to offer.

This matter came before your Lordships' House in January of this year, when the noble Earl, Lord St. Aldwyn, made some observations. I should like noble Lords to study what was said, because my case is stated by the noble Earl who, I believe, put his case with complete accuracy. These are the stark unpleasant and ugly facts. This is what the noble Earl said [OFFICIAL REPORT, Vol. 190 (No. 13), col. 799]: … the commoners cannot erect fences to control grazing; they cannot plough the land in the interests of a proper rotation; they cannot control the number of stock, or manage the grazing in the most efficient manner. As a result, the great majority of the land subject to common rights in this country is gradually becoming derelict. It is covered with bracken or gorse, and is of practically no use to the commoners for agricultural purposes, and of very little use to the general public for recreational purposes. That is a very striking statement applying, as it does, to 2,000,000 acres of land in England and Wales.

Now I myself have been to these commons and in the West of England I have seen—and so have your Lordships—common land breast high, shoulder high, with bracken. I was there with Lord Robinson. I said, "This is perfect land for forestry"—because, as your Lordships probably know, bracken is an indication of exactly the condition which trees want. When nature wants to return to the wild state she starts throwing up bracken, then birch comes into the bracken. Lord Robinson said: "Do not talk about that; this is common land." What good was it to anyone?

I should like now to say a word about the rights of the commoner. I hope I have dispelled, as Lord St. Aldwyn tried to dispel recently, the idea that when one talks about common land one means land over which the public have the right of access. It is not so at all. That is a common misapprehension. You can have all these different rights of common land: appendant, appurtenant, in gross or pur cause de vicinage. You can classify them by subject matter. There are commons of pasture, of piscary, of turbary, commons of estovers and commons of stint. A common of pasture appendant must have existed before the reign of Richard I or at least before the Statute of Quia Emptores of 18 Edward I. The number of cattle which the land will maintain is regulated by the doctrine of levancy and couchancy. It is confined in the case of commons to cattle used to plough and corn pester. Whereas common appurtenant may be for hogs, goats and geese and is also called common without stint. There are many other aspects of the commons about which I could tell your Lordships including frank foldage, pannage and estovers. I am happy to know that there on the Woolsack sits the noble and learned Viscount, the Lord Chancellor, and if anyone wants further information about any of these obscure rights the Lord Chancellor, I am sure, will be ready, with or without notice, to give him full particulars.

As I have said, there are 2,000,000 acres of this land. What is the position? Suppose it is desired to purchase this land by agreement. There would be a meeting of all the commoners. It would be pointed out to them that if this land were taken over and put into good heart they would be far better off than at present, even if they had a smaller area of land. I quote from Halsbury's Laws of England. He summarises this in Vol. 4, page 627, paragraph 1173: The difficulty of obtaining the concurrence of all the commoners where they are at all numerous and the probability that some are incapable of giving a legal consent make the extinguishment of rights of common by mutual agreement a matter of rare occurrence; and there is always the risk that, after all arrangements have been completed, further research may discover other persons entitled to rights of common and that all the proceedings may be rendered nugatory. I have never seen a case of the extinguishment of commoners' rights by agreement.

I come now to the other way of doing it—that is, by Statute. The Statute is regulated by a series of Enclosure Acts and the Commons Act, 1876. The Statute at that time was drawn with the deliberate intention of making it almost impossible to enclose common land. The jingle which was recited in the other place and which was prevailing in men's minds at that time was one which we all learned at school: The Law doth punish man or woman, That steals the goose from off the common, But lets the greater felon loose Who steals the common from the goose. The tendency in 1876 was to make it almost impossible to utilise the procedure of enclosure to deal with commons. In the first place, if any attempt is to be made—and so far as I can find it has been done only twice since 1876—it must first be established that it for the benefit of the neighbourhood as well as of private interests. The whole conception of the advisability of growing trees in the national interest did not then exist. It must be shown that it is to the advantage of the neighbourhood. There must be advertisements. There must then be an application to the Minister supported by commoners holding one third in value—and it might well be a matter of very much difficulty to find out who were one third of the commoners. It must be shown in the application why enclosure is expedient when viewed in relation to the benefit to the neighbourhood. Then, if the Minister is satisfied, there is an inquiry. Then there is a draft provisional order. Then there has to be an agreement by two thirds in value and two thirds in number. Then there has to be a valuer's certificate, with ample powers of certiorari and the like. Finally it has to be confirmed by what would be the equivalent of a Public General Act. You will not be surprised to hear that in substance the whole machinery is impossible. I am glad that the noble and learned Viscount, the Lord Chancellor, and the noble Viscount, Lord Swinton, are both here, as well as Lord Woolton, to listen to this discussion.

My Lords, we are in this position. We have 2,000,000 acres of land in England and Wales which is gradually becoming derelict and which, to use the words of the Minister "grows bracken and the like." We are encumbered by a mass of Anglo-Saxon laws, and I wish to goodness that someone would send those laws packing, bag and baggage, and have some modern, sensible code for dealing with these things, preserving rights of access, preserving playing fields and things of that sort which are not in question at all, and seeing that the land is put in really good heart. We cannot tolerate any longer the kind of thing which is going on. I say it is a public scandal.

I turn now to Scotland. Their system of law is so sensible that I do not suppose they have any of these things. I suppose the nearest analogue in Scotland is crofters' rights. I have in my time visited forests in Scotland and have been in touch with people who are concerned with them. I am bound to say, as I said earlier, that there is no love lost between the sheep people and the foresters. It is a great pity, because if only they would work together, if officials of the Forestry Commission and the Ministry of Agriculture went together and said: "Let us have this bit planted to make a belt, and this bit for the sheep," good results might be secured. But instead of that sort of attitude existing—and the noble Duke who is going to speak next can speak with far greater knowledge than I on this matter—I believe that quite a different atmosphere prevails. And I deeply regret it.

Where are you going to get the necessary land for planting in Scotland? There ought to be much more land in Scotland under trees. Is it practicable to plant trees on peat lands? I speak only for myself and I would not set my opinion against the experts. I have seen places where the experiment of planting on peat lands has been tried. I know that scientifically it is possible and that interesting experiments in this line are being made. But when I saw some of these peat plantations in Scotland I called to mind the words of Dr. Samuel Johnson when he visited a garden where a lady had planted a rather exotic plant which was just managing to survive. Dr. Johnson said: "Never grow a plant, madam, to prove that you can do it." I feel rather the same with regard to the prospect of growing trees on peat land. But, as I have said, I may be wrong; it may be possible.

We should like to know from the noble Earl who is going to reply for the Government something about the great windblow in Scotland and how far it has been dealt with, and what steps have been taken in Scotland as in England to provide some suitable land for the Forestry Commission. Plantable land is divisible into several categories. There is good plantable land; there is fair plantable land, and there is bad plantable land. I have a feeling that owing to the difficulty of getting land the Forestry Commission are now being too much confined to what I would call bad plant-able land. I remember going with Lord Robinson to the top of Plinlimmon and seeing how he was managing to get a plantation growing there. It will grow in time, but it is going to take very much longer for a plantation on land like that to make good than for a plantation, for instance, on the suitable land of Argyll.

In replanting, we have fallen short in our programme. At the end of seven years we have done only 62 per cent. At the end of the eighth year perhaps it is up to 77 per cent. This is not my subject at all and other noble Lords will know much more than I do, and I should like to ask: are the inducements sufficient? After all, we cannot expect landowners to plant land in this way unless they get suitable consideration and inducements. Are these sufficient? Does the impact of income tax, and particularly death duties, hit them very hard here? If a landowner plants land he knows that he will not see the trees come to fruition in his lifetime, and he wants to be quite certain, in this unsettled and uncertain world of to-day, that his son will succeed to his estate.

There is also the problem of the supervision of small woods. Many owners are prepared to plant woods of fifty acres, or what you will, but they want expert advice about them and they want to be able to be sure that they can secure practical management while the wood is growing. No doubt it is sometimes difficult to get that advice or secure that management. Then there is the question of disposal of produce. I am glad to see that the Government have appointed a Committee under Mr. Watson. If anybody can deal with this matter, I think that Mr. Watson and his Committee should. I certainly want to do everything I can to help the replanting programme, and I ask these questions, not with any definite knowledge of this matter but because I should like to be assured of everything being done that can be done. I should like to ask how the dedication scheme is working. Does the noble Earl think that it is sufficiently elastic? I should like to ask him, too, about the licensing scheme. I have a rather uncomfortable feeling (though I have no figures about this) that we are still cutting too much, because we have precious little left. So far as hedgerow timber is concerned, which of course has nothing to do with forestry, I feel that the beauty of the countryside is being largely destroyed by all the cutting that we see being done throughout the country at the present time. I hope the Minister will deal with these points.

When one looks into these things I think what a disaster the "May Axe" and "Geddes Axe" proved, by destroying the continuity of these schemes. I think it is a great misfortune that the Government have to cut down housing, because, as I have said before, these forestry communities are very happy little bodies. I should like to ask the noble Earl who is going to reply this question about Wales. I am told (I do not know whether it is right) that there is a certain reluctance among Welshmen to join forestry. Forestry schools have been provided, students are taught in the Welsh language, and everything possible has been done; but notwithstanding all these efforts, for some reason which I do not understand Welshmen are reluctant to join. The result is that English foresters are being employed, and so the Welsh regard forestry as some kind of foreign invasion. I should like to be assured on that point.

I would also ask the Government: are they going to adhere to the desirable programme in the 1943 Report? If so, do they mean to make lib the arrears? And, if so, what steps are they going to take to find land? Are they going to do anything about common land? I beg them: for goodness' sake do not tell us again— we heard it last May and in January—that the matter is still receiving consideration or is under careful study. I can imagine Ministers, with wet towels round their heads, and drinking black coffee, studying this matter in the still watches of the night. We want action now. I suggest that we should appoint either a Commission or a Committee—or, indeed, a series of Committees—to look into this very complicated question.

If the Government will not do that, will they then do this—it would suit me admirably? Will they consider the law and give the Forestry Commission power to acquire these common lands under some sensible code, of course paying proper and due compensation to all whose rights are affected, and having most anxious regard for all sorts of public rights, rights of access and so forth—and of course after the Minister has held an inquiry and has given his consent?


May I ask the noble and learned Earl whether he is advocating from the Labour benches a series of enclosure Acts.


In substance that is what I am saying. I am not going to be bound by the antiquated past. I say that it is a lamentable thing that 2,000,000 acres of land should be gradually falling into decay because we are bound by this antiquated Anglo-Saxon legal system. I suggest a Commission, and I suggest that if there were some son: of enclosure we should be able to give to the commoners rights equivalent to those which they have to-day; for were the commons in good heart, far less of the land than they have to-day would satisfy their needs, and the rest of the land could be devoted to public uses—namely, the growing of forests for the nation. I cannot see any reason why, from Labour Benches or any other Benches, anybody who cares about the future of forestry should not desire to see that the land of this country is put to the best use to which it can be put. We can no longer afford to allow the antiquated Anglo-Saxon system to interfere with the proper use of our land. That is what I feel, and I beg the Government to do something about it. If I can take part of the odium of that sort of representation I am only too pleased.


Is the noble and learned Earl interested in the commoners who own these lands?


Of course I am, but what is going to happen? The noble Viscount should consider the position of commoners who have the right to graze cattle on land which is covered with gorse and bracken, which would not feed one anæamic sheep. If a small fraction of that land were properly ploughed and looked after, and put in good heart, they could graze more cattle. I am not suggesting any encroachment on the rights of access, or on the rights of the public, but I am saying that we should encourage the commoners, or anybody else, to put this land in good heart. It does not matter so much what they are going to do with it afterwards. They can use it for agriculture—that is "all right by me." But I suggest it is important that it should be used for forestry. But it is not right to allow this land gradually to become derelict. I say that that is a deplorable thing, and I beg the Government to take steps to deal with this matter. Forestry has always been a completely non-Party matter, I am glad to say, and I have tried to keep it so to-day; but I believe it is a matter of profound importance to the future of this country. I beg to move for Papers.